Mark Twain saw the possibilities of baseball becoming our national pastime more than 130 years ago.
He called it the very symbol “of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
But now that we’re well into the 21st century — an era of both computer analytics and viral pandemics — America’s great humorist might be more likely to restate his version of the “three kinds of lies:”
“Lies, damned lies. . . and statistics.”
Several of Major League Baseball’s seemingly impregnable barriers — most prominently the .400 batting average and 1.00 earned run average — have been made vulnerable by the coronavirus. New York Yankee infielder D.J. LeMahieu and Cleveland Indian pitcher Shane Bieber have a shot at beating those numbers with three weeks left in a season condensed from 162 games to 60.
“There’s going to be some eye-popping stats, I think, and a lot of surprises,” said LeMahieu, who was batting .402 as recently as Tuesday. “I guess that is the fun part of the 60 games, for sure.”
Nobody has batted .400 since Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox turned the trick nearly 80 years ago. Williams, who lived here with relatives during portions of his youth, once identified his Santa Barbara uncle as his “first instructor.”
“He was my mother’s brother,” he said of Saul Venzor during an interview 20 years ago. “He was a pretty good baseball player.”
So good, in fact, that Williams hit .406 in 1941. The Major League record is actually .440, set by Hugh Duffy in 1894. But during the 19th century, wipeout sliders and 100-mph fastballs were still just a gleam in Abner Doubleday’s eyes.
Several players did flirt with .400 in recent times. San Diego’s Tony Gwynn batted .394 during the strike-shortened season of 1994. Pine-tar-loving George Brett stickied up his bat enough to hit .390 in 1980, although injuries limited his season, as well, to just 117 games.
Sports writers would call Williams every time a batter challenged that magical milestone.
“For a player to hit .400, he will have to draw walks and not strikeout too much,” Williams said after Brett’s failed quest. “He will have to be consistent, and that’s not an easy task when you’re playing 150, 160 games.
“But in today’s game, it will be important to remain as consistent as ever because relief pitching is such a big part of the game. . . a hitter may be seeing three or four different pitchers in one game.”
One stat nerd determined that in 2016, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto hit .401 during the current season’s time frame of July 23 through Sept. 27. Votto finished that year at just .326, however.
Streak-hitting Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers was batting .404 after nearly the first two months of last season. He was at .305 by the end of September.
Just two weeks ago, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon was neck-and-neck with LeMahieu in the rarified air of .400. But he’s gone just 4-for-32 since then to deflate his average from .405 to .343.
LeMahieu, who missed the Yankees’ opener after testing asymptomatic with COVID-19, dropped to .383 after former UCSB star Dillon Tate struck him out on Friday. But he says he’s not focused on batting .400, anyway.
“Baseball is way too hard to try to do that,” he said. “But I think it’s possible.”
He’s lucky that he won’t have to face Tate’s old Gaucho teammate during this geographically compartmentalized season. The Yankees won’t play the Indians unless they get matched up in the playoffs.
Bieber, who will start for Cleveland in today’s game against Milwaukee, leads all of baseball with 84 strikeouts in eight starts. His ratio of 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings puts him on pace to break the Major League record of 13.8 set last year by Houston’s Gerrit Cole.
Bieber whiffed 14 Kansas City batters on July 23 to pass Bob Gibson and Lon Warneke for most strikeouts without allowing a run on Opening Day.
It would be more extraordinary, however, for him to break the modern-day record for earned run average (1.12) that Gibson set in 1968. It was such an astounding feat that it stirred Major League Baseball to reduce the size of the strike zone and lower the pitching mound by a third.
But Bieber’s ERA of 1.20 still puts him in range of beating that mark in the tighter, flatter world of 2020.
“His curveball is so good right now, I think there are times hitters are sitting on it and they still can’t not swing at it,” Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. “Or they get frozen because they think it’s a ball out of the hand. He throws it with such conviction.
“I think he’s building his own brand and doing a really good job with it.”
The last time a pitcher dipped under 1.00 was when Boston’s Dutch Leonard, excited by the opening of Fenway Park just two years earlier, fashioned a 0.96 ERA in 1914.
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown came close for the Chicago Cubs at 1.04 in 1906 — eight years before the opening of Wrigley Field. He got his nickname, as well as the ability to throw a nasty curveball, after his right hand was caught in a thresher that separated grain from stalks and husks.
Fortunately for Bieber, he was able to skip a farming accident and just had former Gaucho teammate Trevor Bettencourt teach him his curveball two years ago.
“I really enjoy that pitch right now,” Bieber said. “It’s kind of my baby.”
Rookie Tim O’Keefe of the National League’s Troy Trojans of upstate New York delivered the all-time-best ERA of 0.86 in 1880 — five years before France delivered the Statue of Liberty in downstate New York.
If Bieber does break his record, O’Keefe’s great, great, great grandchildren can say that the Cleveland ace didn’t have the pressure of spectators during this season of the COVID. The Troy Trojans, after all, had to play before a whopping 25 fans in their season finale at Worcester.
The shortened season should at least necessitate a notation next to any new entries in the record book. Then-commissioner Ford Frick suggested that in 1961 when Roger Maris took advantage of a longer season to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs.
It makes more sense in 2020 than it did in 1961. An asterisk, after all, does kind of look like the coronavirus.